Future Schlock

As the pundits never tired of telling us, the 21st century technically arrived today.

Yet no one flew to an obscure island in the South Pacific to be the first to greet it. There were no live TV feeds trained on ecstatic crowds around the globe, nor did distinguished broadcasters keep bleary-eyed watch across time zones as the new millennium was born.

It’s just as well.

Last year’s planetary bash may have been based on fuzzy math, but at least we were in the mood to party. This year doesn’t feel half so festive. Our new president and his running mate George Bush warn of bad economic times to come. Irrational exuberance is yielding to a spasmodic irrational despondency that’s just as flaky and self-fulfilling. (Think of the stock market’s paroxysm of despair when the great god Greenspan failed to hurl his rate-cutting thunderbolt in late December.)

Call it a correction, a slowdown, a downturn, a soft, hard or crash landing; pessimism about 2001 is cutting edge.

So let’s count some of the lessons consumers are learning as the ga-ga ’90s recede into history. We are reminded that investing in the stock market is not like buying a lottery ticket in which every number is a winner. We are adjusting to the reality that the heroic age of computers—and capital spending on computers—is drawing to a close.

We still believe in the Internet, but thus far, its main accomplishment in the marketplace has been to raise the cost of selling even as it puts downward pressure on prices.

Moreover, after being told our economy can live on ideas alone, we are bedeviled by stubbornly material things, such as oil and natural gas. Millions in California live in daily fear of being without electricity, the mother’s milk of high-tech gadgets.

Finally, it’s a little freaky to hear the word “recession” again. Wasn’t the New Economy supposed to render business cycles obsolete?

It won’t take a full-fledged recession—layoffs and rising unemployment—to sober consumers after the bull-market binge. They are undergoing an attitude adjustment, and marketers have to adjust with them. Don’t worry—yet—about economic meltdown. The big question in 2001: How do you keep a brand “relevant” to an unnerved baby boomer who sees the value of his 401k shrink three quarters in a row?

You won’t find much guidance in the last downturn a decade ago. When the ’80s boom collapsed in a flurry of indictments, credit squeezes, bankruptcies and layoffs, the focus groups told us consumers had learned their lesson. We not only accepted diminished expectations as penance for our acquisitiveness, we would make a virtue of it. Never again would we slave away to acquire gaudy baubles.

Bad times would bring us back to basics: simple pleasures, freedom from clutter, balance between work and home and care and maintenance of our spiritual well-being. Our brands took up the call.

But a funny thing happened on the road to the long boom. The values born of disgust at our greedy ’80s ways not only outlived the last economic lull; ironically, they went on to fuel a consumption binge that made the previous decade look like an era of fiscal restraint.

We spent more for less—not because we were materialists but to show our contempt for materialism. Fashionable minimalism turned out to be more costly than the bibelots of excess. In the words of the MasterCard campaign, we treasured what was “priceless,” even as we loaded up our credit cards.

The post-bubble consumers of ’00s can’t go back to simple pleasures because we never left; such pleasures are just more expensive these days.

Nor do we feel guilty; self-indulgence without guilt was what the ’90s buying spree was all about. Yet marketers who hope to persuade cautious consumers to dip into their wallets have to marry an aspirational theme to basic consumption.

For the near term, moving forward involves looking back. Look for a moratorium on paeans to never-ending change and promiscuous calls for a revolution that would make Trotsky blush. The new wisdom declares the more things change, the more they stay the same. Having been sold on the glories of disintermediation—becoming our own investment counselors and store clerks—consumers will be in the mood for some expert intermediation again.

And we’ve already seen the shift in ads for the chastened financial sector, in which mordant jokes about profitability and the New New Economy (i.e. the Old Economy) are in vogue and the wise stockbroker is making a comeback. We’ve finally crossed that bridge into the 21st century, only to find the verities of the 20th waiting on the other side.